They Will Have to Kill Us First

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Jonathan Richards

THEY WILL HAVE TO KILL US FIRST, doc­u­men­tary, not rated; in English, French, Bam­bara, Song­hay, and Ta­mashek with sub­ti­tles; The Screen, 3 chiles

A ban on mu­sic in Mali is like a ban on baguettes in France, or pasta in Italy, or vodka in Rus­sia. And yet that’s what hap­pened, in 2012, when ji­hadist rebels took con­trol of vast ar­eas of north­ern Mali, in­clud­ing the cities of Gao and Tim­buktu. They im­posed strict Sharia law and for­bade all mu­sic, live or broad­cast.

Many Malian mu­si­cians fled, many tak­ing refuge in the south in Ba­mako, the cap­i­tal. And this is where film­maker Jo­hanna Schwartz finds them, liv­ing in an an­guished ex­ile that re­calls the haunting song “Rivers of Baby­lon” heard in the 1972 Ja­maican movie The Harder They Come: “By the rivers of Baby­lon, / Where we sat down, There we wept, / When we re­mem­bered Zion.” Among the dis­placed mu­si­cians is Khaira Arby, an elderly singer of in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion called “the Nightin­gale of Mali,” who grieves for her lost home. “Tim­buktu was so beau­ti­ful and gen­tle, you couldn’t even de­scribe it,” she sighs. Be­ing away from there, and away from her mu­si­cal roots, is “like cutting the oxy­gen off.”

We also meet Fadi­mata Walet Ou­mar, a singer known as “Disco,” who works to help other refugee women and laments her life in ex­ile, ob­serv­ing that in her cul­ture, “It’s through mu­sic that we teach mo­ral­ity.” Disco is mar­ried to “Jimmy,” a for­mer Malian general who joined the Tuareg MNLA sep­a­ratist move­ment, only to see it co- opted by the ji­hadists. She tells us she had al­ways vowed never to marry a mil­i­tary man, and she still seems a bit per­plexed at how she wound up with one.

The mo­ral­ity of the ji­hadists who have seized the north comes into ques­tion from one of the mem­bers of the group Songhoy Blues, a quar­tet of young mu­si­cians who met in Ba­mako af­ter flee­ing their homes. “They [the ji­hadists] say you have to get rid of ev­ery­thing that’s not tra­di­tional,” he says, and then with a wry smile he points out that “their weapons are mod­ern, their ve­hi­cles and their GPS are mod­ern.”

Schwartz and cin­e­matog­ra­pher Karelle Walker cap­ture some gor­geous footage around the city and the coun­try­side near Ba­mako. One par­tic­u­larly cap­ti­vat­ing scene finds Songhoy Blues sit­ting on the banks of the Niger at dusk strum­ming their guitars and work­ing on the com­po­si­tion of songs. The film­mak­ers also in­clude news footage of bat­tles, and a par­tic­u­larly un­set­tling bit of grainy film show­ing the Sharia pun­ish­ment for steal­ing: the cutting off of a man’s hand.

Schwartz headed to Mali soon af­ter hear­ing of the ji­hadist takeover and crack down on mu­sic, and she is able to fol­low the de­vel­op­ments as Malian and French armies re­cap­ture the north and demo­cratic elec­tions are re­stored, and as West­ern mu­sic pro­duc­ers come to Ba­mako and dis­cover Songhoy Blues and send the group on a tour of the UK. As the ter­ror re­cedes, Arby and Disco be­gin plan­ning a re­turn to Tim­buktu and a cel­e­bra­tory home­com­ing con­cert there. They come back to a war-rav­aged city that is some­times barely rec­og­niz­able. “Ev­ery­thing had changed,” Disco says.

But our an­tic­i­pa­tion of a glo­ri­ous mu­si­cal cli­max isn’t paid in full. The mu­sic, which should be the heart and soul of this doc­u­men­tary, ap­pears in the film enough to whet the ap­petite, but there is not enough of it, and the cli­mac­tic con­cert never re­ally takes flight.

Even so, the movie man­ages to pro­vide an in­trigu­ing primer on the Malian cul­ture, and the gulf be­tween the liv­ing prac­tice of Is­lam by the vast ma­jor­ity of its fol­low­ers and the hi­jack­ing of the faith by ex­trem­ists. It shows us the hu­man­ity of this land­locked peo­ple of Africa, and the mu­sic they can’t live with­out. “If we can’t have mu­sic,” Arby says, “that’s the end of us.”

Sounds in ex­ile: Songhoy Blues

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